Line Manager support for employee wellbeing: Keeping it simple
By Dr Julie Denning – Co-Founder & Managing Director at Working To Wellbeing
Right now, Line Managers must be buckling under the strain of the job of being a manager. Communicating with and motivating a team that might be spread across home, on-site or a mix of both, along with health and safety considerations and the constant adjustment of work schedules to allow for team members being pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app, is challenge enough. But, on top of that, the growing pressure on Line Managers – from government level down – to gain the skills to support employees with mental health issues, along with also supporting disabled employees and those with any long-term health condition to remain in work, is palpable. On top of all that, of course, is the requirement to also be completely on top of everything else diversity, inclusion and health related. For example, 2021 saw more articles on menopause and infertility than ever before, anecdotally speaking. These are all great strides, but perhaps it’s time to hit pause; to reflect on what support Line Managers really need in order to put on their oxygen masks first.
In this article, we take a look at how keep things simple; an essential requirement in today’s ever complex world. We focus on the support that Line Managers really need in order to focus on the individual. Because, let’s face it, overloading Line Managers with articles on every condition under the sun isn’t going to help them figure out how they can best talk with and help a member of their team who is in need; the solutions are as varied as the people themselves.
Get joined up
Keeping things simple involves first figuring out how to join up all those health and wellbeing focused demands. Then we can come up with the common themes or steps that will help ensure the personalised focus required.
What all the health and wellbeing aspects I’ve mentioned so far have in common is that there’s a low likelihood of a quick fix, yet a high likelihood that the individual could and indeed should (for all kinds of social, physical and emotional reasons) remain in good work as far as possible.
The issue of supporting employees with long-term conditions is not a new one, but it’s one that has been flung into the spotlight in recent times as a result of Long Covid; a debilitating condition for which there is no cure. Those impacted will likely have good days and bad days and these swings could continue for months. So, long-term absence isn’t the answer; especially considering evidence that the longer the absence (where any condition is concerned), the bigger the risk that people simply won’t recover and return to work; 1 in 5 will not return to work after just 4 weeks of absence.
Of course, employees are impacted by many more long-term conditions than just Long Covid. For example, mental ill-health, diabetes, endometriosis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain and fatigue, cancer and heart disease, to name but a few.
Work as a health outcome
Employers have a responsibility, in all of these cases, to provide the support people need to ensure life- and work-ability; to help prevent absence happening in the first place. This is about seeing work as part of the solution, not the problem. Or, in other words, viewing work as a health outcome. This distinction is really important for employers to understand. Why? Because it’s arguably a shift away from the traditional model of workplace health support.
Allow me to explain.
Unless clinicians regularly provide employer support – in other words, they understand workplaces – ‘work’ won’t be seen as a health outcome. They will focus squarely on cure. What does this look like in practice? The clinician’s responsibility, in this case, is to sign people off work and signpost to diagnosis and treatment. They may not be in touch with that employee again until he/she makes their own personal assessment on whether they are ready to return to work. Of course, where there is no cure, as with Long Covid, not to mention countless other conditions, the individual is left in a kind of limbo land. They can of course receive support outside of the workplace in the shape of ongoing treatment and condition management, but who’s looking out for them in the workplace? Who’s giving them what they need in order to bring their best selves to work?
On the other hand, those clinicians that do regularly provide employer support – that understand workplaces – will be more focused on ‘function’ and ‘work’. In other words, they will view work as a health outcome. This means that they will be there to support employees throughout diagnosis and treatment, to look at what they can do as much as what they can’t, and to work together to design a personalised plan of action that ensures ongoing social, physical and emotional support in and outside the workplace, whether a cure is in sight or not.
The latter is, in a nutshell, the Vocational Rehabilitation difference.
Common steps, whatever the condition
So, going back to our joined-up thinking approach – namely, supporting people with long-term conditions to stay in work – what are the common steps that employers can take, whatever the condition? First and foremost, start with the employer – give Line Managers the skills they need to be the first line of defence; in terms of listening and communication skills, developing empathy, identifying potential problems, signposting and following up with employees to check whether they got the support they needed. However, also have a plan B.
If the Line Manager is struggling with a particular employee issue, this is the time for the clinician to step in. A Vocational Rehabilitation expert should be able to help in all of these areas – from the training of Line Managers and their ongoing support, to also working with individual employees to provide personalised function and work focused support where required.
The combination of both should follow a series of common themes, along the lines of:
- Focus on the individual – what are their needs? What can they do? What can’t they do?
- Talk, talk, talk – document everything discussed in a Wellbeing Action Plan for the employee to follow, with regular reviews, and also keep the employer updated.
- Reassurance that the line manager has boundaries to work within and isn’t expected to solve everything
On a final note, whatever you decide to do to support your line managers, ensure alignment with corporate values as these represent the foundation for everything.